The phrase “cozy mystery” brings the image of my Aunt Mabel sipping tea by the fire on a rainy day while reading a mystery featuring a heroine of her age and gentleness. As you might have already guessed—I’ve never read a cozy mystery.*
Zoë Sharp provides something a good deal more to my liking: the cozy thriller. NOT about, or for, tea-sipping aunties. But more about Cozy Thrillers later. Hard Knocks is the third in the Charlie Fox series and Ms. Sharp’s great writing just keeps getting better. For openers, here’s the opener:
It rained on the day of Kirk Salter’s funeral. Hard cold rain, close to sleet. Driven down off the moors by a frenzied wind, it rampaged through the gravestones of the bleak little Yorkshire churchyard and buffeted the sparse group of mourners clustered round the open grave.
My regular readers will recall how much I liked Riot Act because of the humor, the thrills, and the exceptionally well portrayed parental relationship. Hard Knocks starts out with our heroine suffering through the happy holidays with her folks. Her explanation for why she puts up with them:
Still, it’s amazing what the prospect of being homeless at Christmas does to your pride.
Ah yes, seems her apartment was burned to a crisp. How did that happen? Just a page in and you find a fistful of questions.
From there she takes us to a training camp for personal bodyguards. I was thinking of going to one myself (though at my age I was thinking mostly about coming home: Wheel chair? Body bag? Stretcher?) to improve my knowledge of close-protection. Now I don’t have to. She set the scene with such clarity that you’re out of breath on the first morning’s run and feeling the bruised kidneys that evening. The first third of the story is a fascinating and perfect lesson in all aspects of the bodyguard business.
Ms. Sharp’s description of the training is so interesting you’ll barely notice the intriguing clues that make up the heart of the mystery. A distant kidnapping, a strange warning, an ineffective attack, a few things that don’t quite add up. Ms. Sharp will lull you into a comfortable routine at the training facility. Everything’s nice and cozy: you have a few clues, a few suspects and you’re working on the resolution. You think you have it under control.
When the bad guys invade your comfy pages, you’re shocked. And that’s why I call it a cozy thriller. You feel cozy, fascinated and comfortable, right up to the point where all hell breaks loose.
The action develops with unexpected twists and turns. Ms. Sharp’s fight scenes went from very good in her early books to incredibly good in this one. You will feel the bones breaking, the tendons tearing, your dinner turning over in your tummy. The shooting scenes will make you sweat. The tension between villains and good guys is realistic, you will never say, ‘wait a minute, that could never happen’. And, best of all, you will keep turning the pages.
Note to male readers: be forewarned, we nearly have the breakout of a romance novel—complete with feelings, recriminations, and equivocations. But Ms. Sharp was merciful. While she had plenty of romantic backstory from the first two books to draw from, none of the ‘relationship’ passages were so long you couldn’t skim your way out of it in a few seconds. Guys-Grade: A, for expected romantic interludes that are not enough to make you put the book down and say, ugh (see: Twilight… ugh).
Note to female readers: This is a thriller (the genre notorious for fights, car chases, and violence) not a romance novel. For this genre, I’d give it a Girls-Grade: A+, for fascinating sexual tension with depth of emotion and hope—springing eternal.
Bottom Line: Great series. Great Book. Highly recommended.
And I’m excited about reading more of Ms. Sharp’s work. When my son was four years old, we were taking down the Christmas decorations and had to reassure him that they would not be thrown away, they would be stored until ‘next year’. He started jumping up and down, clapping his hands and giggling with delight. He ran to tell his big sister, “Guess what! Guess what! Christmas comes every year! Yay!”
I had a similar epiphany when writing this review. I visited Ms. Sharp’s site to research how many books she has out there and discovered: Not only do I have SEVEN MORE BOOKS to read, but she writes SHORT STORIES TOO! Yay!
*Unless you want to qualify Alan Bradley’s fine series of mysterious events solved by Flavia DeLuce as cozy… but I think Flavia would make you awfully uncomfortable if you did.